Son-Mother: Director Mahnaz Mohammadi Discusses Making Independent Film In Iran
By: Amir Ganjavie
Documentarian Mahnaz Mohammadi, in her fiction-feature debut from, depicts a working widow who receives a marriage proposal that brings her financial security, but also tears her family apart.
A filmmaker, actress, and women's rights activist, Mohammadi's first feature film is an authentic story of a relationship between a mother and a son in all its tense complexity. The screenplay by writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof divides the film in two, and shows the experiences of each protagonist, mother and son separately. One of the saddest stories to come out of recent Iranian cinemaI, the film never hides its attention to be critical of the inborn prejudice against independent women in Iran. Premiered at Toronto Int. Film Festival, I had the opportunity to talk to the director.
Amir Ganjavie, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): Where did the idea of a deaf boy in a boarding school come from? Was it based on a true story you read in newspapers or did you hear it from someone?
Mahnaz Mohammadi (MM): I’m not supposed to spoil the plot but it is based on what happens in every life: When you look at our own lives, can’t you find similar cases? Didn’t we have to grow up sooner than usual and take responsibility because of the adults in our lives? Haven’t this happened to us or people we know? I’m sure that it has happened to all of us. We were all forced to do things which were asked from us, despite our desire.
UM: We see the mother without seeing her son in half of the film and in the other half, the son was present and the mother was not in the picture. Please talk about this aspect of the film.
MM: Almost all journalists ask me this question, and even the producers asked me about it during production. Yes, I made the film in a way that we narrate the life of the mother in the first half of the film, without showing the son, and the son’s absent is significant. He exists and yet he is not there, and everybody is making decisions about him without him being a part of it. In the second half, they make a decision to send him somewhere else, and another fate awaits him, and this time the mother is absent.
My story is the story of the generation whom we sacrificed. A generation which surrendered by tradition, and accepting tradition only leads to tragedy. The life of the boy in the film is not up to him, but he has to carry the responsibility that has forced on him. At first, it’s the son whom we don’t see, and then the maternal feeling that does not exist, and all mental issues this has on the boy in the absence of his mother. Now this child could be any of us, and we have to keep circling that hole which was left in us in our childhood.
UM: And as you have shown in your film, the woman is a victim of the system in which she’s living in and in that system, there are no good or bad people, everybody is the victim of the economic conditions forced on them. With this in mind, do you consider patriarchy to be a social phenomenon?
MM: Many men carry that patriarchal tradition without them knowing. Kazem most probably wants to make a better life for his family, even for that boy, and something telling him to wait. It is the system which forces them to treat each other that way, and this patriarchal order cuts deeper than this, and it exists in our structure, and we inevitably carry it with us. And we pass it on to the next generation and the generations after that, and its result is nothing but what we see at the end.
UM: As a female filmmaker, do you see it as your duty to focus on issues related to women?
MM: Well, I think my filmmaking process is based on what I know or things I try to learn. What is more or better is knowing yourself as a woman, and knowing where these gaps in you have come from. Maybe I’m that AmirAli, or maybe a part of Leila is in me, or even a part of Kazem. Surely my feminine outlook with which I have come to this world is different than yours, as a man.
But I try not to distinguish things or perspectives as feminine or masculine, because most of the time gender is not important, but naturally, I have always been under pressure as a woman. Imagine the things that erupt out of your mind, things you have experienced and want to talk about, when you’re a woman who is under pressure in the society. All I try is to learn and experience and talk about those experiences.
UM: It was interesting when I paid attention to characterization in the film. We have all types of male and female characters, it’s not just black or white.
MM: Because that’s how people are. Nobody is inherently bad, but if the situation demands, they turn that way to get themselves out of a crisis. Surely Bibi wanted to help them but nothing else could be done except what happens in the end.
UM: How do you see Kazem’s decision in the film to get married with Raha with the option of not having any children in the relationship?
MM: When I’m in a dire financial situation and I have a young daughter, like the character of Kazem in the film, I would prefer marrying a woman who can take care of my daughter, and I can also take care of her child. It is possible if one of these children is younger than the other, but not for two children of the same age. Even in a normal situation, living like this is difficult, when people around you keep talking behind your back. There is a scene in the film in which Bibi tells Leila that she likes to do the same, but she cannot handle what people might say. This idea of ‘what should I tell people?’ means what the audience thinks. We are doing the same thing. It is us who are carrying the tradition. Perhaps many people wonder whether these traditions still exist or not, but I have told all other journalists that it exists, and it is important for me to focus on this issue. I’m a documentary filmmaker and I have done my research. I have travelled around Iran for my projects and one of the questions I have asked people was about this issue: “I know somebody who is in this situation and now wants to get married, what you do think?” and everybody started saying that there’s no problem, and those traditional beliefs are for the past which is long gone now, and it doesn’t matter anymore; as our conversations continued, they started asking things like “Why doesn’t the son/daughter live with the other parent?”, and that is how a verbal argument would start between them. How can someone who has a son or a daughter remarry? It’s like fire and gasoline. Each tribe has a proverb about this.
If you leave big cities and get away from the center, you’ll see these things happening right now. As you have probably seen, a nine years old girl gets married with a 28 years old man. It happens so frequently. We have internet access and satellite channels, and we think the world is what we are experiencing, while if we step outside our comfort zone, we’ll see that the world is different.
UM: You’re the only filmmaker from Iran to compete at this year festival. What does this explain about the quality of films made in Iran?
MM: I don’t want to claim that my films are better than and superior films. I think the audience must decide, and all I can say is that I have tried to show the truth, and I have done everything I could to show it with honesty, and it has been important for me to see people finding themselves in one of the characters: Habib, Leila, Kazem or Amirali… you have surely experienced similar misery and pain as one of these characters had. I think this is the most important factor. What comes out of real experiences will speak the truth, and all I have tried to do was to focus on the truth, where all I say is the truth, not what I or others like it. I can say this film is the only completely independent film made in Iran last year. Other films get financial support from somewhere, and that is why the true essence in the film speaks to the audience. If you read the comments made on the film, you’ll see it.
UM: Did you have a permit to make this film?
MM: I was obliged to respect the law, and I have acted accordingly, and received permit. There were times when they asked me to change or delete certain things and I have protested and resisted.
As far as I can remember, people in the government have accused me of different things, but it was not the authorities who have made these accusations, but people around them. For example, they used to tell me that I’m not allowed to make a film but I never received an official letter that I cannot make films. They show you the way in which you are supposed to walk, and I try to tell the truth in this path, and I think that is the biggest challenge.
UM: You talked about the conditions of making an independent film, would your talk more about this aspect of the film.
MM: The thing is that there is a huge amount of money in our country, and if you want, you can get it for your film. There are many places that want to work with you; but the screenplays that are given to you are not yours, and they are not believable. The characters are flat and unrealistic. But our audience members are intelligent, and I think if you want to portray a character or an event, you need a more independent and pure cinema, one which does not suppress your beliefs.
UM: So, you define independent cinema in which the budget for the films is secured by individuals and not organizations, and also, a cinema which does not follow any ideology.
MM: Yes. No left or right parties. We are not supposed to be pawns for any groups or parties, living in Iran or outside of Iran. Left or right, reformists or not. I think filmmaking is not related to any of this.
UM: I would like to know about the casting process; why did you select these specific actors? And how did you select them, especially the actor who played as the little boy?
MM: The casting was a long process because, luckily, the producers had given us freedom to select well-known actors but finding an actor in that age who had not played similar roles before was a difficult task. That is why I preferred finding someone whose face had not been seen much and then try to create the character from the scratch. Thank God it was successful and I am satisfied with the result.
And about the boy… well, we saw many boys of his age. Working with kids is a lot easier for me, because their world is simpler, more honest, and easier to understand. It is easier to get close to their world and AmirAli was one of the best, and I think this film was a unique experience for him as well.
UM: I really liked the performances in the film, they were realistic, especially the little boy,
Mahan’s character, which you mentioned. I wanted to know about the process of getting them to act like that. How did you try to get the boy to act so naturally?
MM: I didn’t give the boy the screenplay because I didn’t want him to feel pressured. I was worried about him, because of all the pain that is reflected in the film. He had to experience many things, like separation, and I tried to talk to him after each take or scene. Of course, we talked for an hour before the shooting started, where we talked about questions like who I am, who you are, why we want to do this film and etc. Everything became clear to us, and luckily, the trust that this boy had in the story and the film showed itself in each and every scene. It was not like I have asked someone to act. It was natural.
The film is about a completely realistic topic. About things that each of us has experienced, and I tried to use whatever is in the heart and soul of the boy into the film simultaneously protect him from any psychological harm.
UM: What about other roles? Were you looking for realistic aspects in them as well?
MM: One of my friends say that I have an eye for beauty. I was considering different actors for the roles, when I talked to them, I looked not just their face which must be suitable for the characters, but also that brokenness in their soul. When you sit down and talk to them, you know how far you can go with them, and how long they are at your side, without giving up.
What is important for me in directing the actors is what goes on inside. For example, I asked AmirAli “Tell me, what are your characteristic features? So, I can know where to use them.” And he said “I’m stubborn” and he really was stubborn. When he woke up early in the morning, he didn’t want to do anything, and he kept saying no to different things. I told him “it’s alright, I have also been stubborn when I was young, hopefully we’ll work on it, and we’ll use it in the film. A stubborn person only brings harm to himself/herself and denies some really good things in life.” He did not believe it, and we kept socializing during the production, and as the film progressed, one day I gave him a task and he didn’t do it. I called him over, and sat him behind the monitor, and told him: “If you had done what I asked you to, we could have seen you more in these areas which had more light. When you get here, it gets dark, and I have to cut this part out”. Suddenly, he started crying, saying that “I don’t want to be stubborn anymore”. I told him now’s not the time to be like this because the film is being made on an independent budget, and we cannot re-shoot the scenes several times.
UM: How many days does the shooting take place?
MM: Filming took 48 days, for me, it was almost as if I was making two films. But I see the whole experience like having a good conversation with an idea, a belief, that each member in our cast and crew believed. Especially Ashkan Ashkani who was a great cinematographer and helped us greatly to get each shot perfectly. I gave a copy of the screenplay to all members of our crew. I told them to read it first and see if they connect with it or not. If you see yourself in it, then we have to do something. It’s like we did the film for ourselves, for each of us who had experienced that kind of suppression in our childhood, at least once… either because of our desperate mothers, or our own desperation. So, we must do something about these cramped up emotions and memories.
UM: I really liked the shots and frames. I would like to know more about your collaboration with your director of photography.
MM: We have many great cinematographers in Iran and Ashkan Ashkani is one of the best. Luckily Ashkan and I came from a similar background; both of us came from a middleclass family, and this story was so familiar and palpable for us. We have lived it, and we have made films and documentaries.
One more thing is that Ashkani is an extremely visual artist, that is why I could trust him with the scenes, and he always gave me something new, different things than what I had in mind. Most of the time we agreed on the choices for the scenes. I think I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to work with someone like Ashkan, and someone like Mr. Pak. He has worked on 40 films, and this was my first feature film. I must have been ignorant not to see how his presence and his help made it easier to make this film.
UM: We talked about the problems of making independent films. I wanted to ask you about the return of investment in Iran.
MM: See, if they let it, you’ll get your investment back. Just look how many journalists, or other people, came to see the film in these two or three days. If there is equal opportunity, then be sure that you generate revenue. I have no doubt it. For example, we had a screening here where it was sold-out. I think it would be the same in Iran, and I’m sure nobody has prejudice before seeing the film, and it’s important for the government not decide for the Iranian audience, and let them see the film and decide themselves. If there is an equal opportunity, then you’ll see the return of investment for your film.
UM: Does an Iranian company represent and distribute the film?
MM: No. It’s a German company called Beta Cinema which also had another film at the festival.
UM: Have you ever had a co-production with other countries?
MM: I have worked with them in documentaries, because Farzad is an international producer himself. Now that you have mentioned it, the director of Antonita’s Daughter has a film at the festival, and had some suggestions which it seems that we share so many things, and we are going to discuss these things further. We may be geographically apart, but the pain and misery are the same wherever you go.
UM: Are the doors to co-productions open for everybody?
MM: There are certain problems because of the US sanctions, and Farzad can explain this better than me because he is still collaborating with others.
Farzad Pak: One main problem in co-productions is that since there are sanctions, there cannot be an official contract for co-productions. If I wanted to give you an example, we produced a film at the Locarno International Film Festival two years ago, it was titled Just Like My Son and it was shot in different countries: Italy, Iran, Croatia and Belgium, and we were the co-producers of the film but Locarno did not mention our names as co-producers. Because a co-production agreement did not exist, and it caused trouble for the company and our friends with whom I had worked with, and we had to do lots of paper work, like filling out official forms, to make it happen. They talk about collaborating and co-producing; but in practice, it’s not like that.
Of course, the atmosphere in Iran is changing, both in productions and in filmmaking experiences. Iran is getting better at having specific teams for light, cinematography, producing and etc., and these aspects of production are being passed to specialized teams, and each team does what they are good at. Everything is getting close to international standards. Because of the restrictions in Iran, production used to be one which was done by the cast and crew, unlike filmmaking in other parts of the world where people have specific responsibilities and each part is given to a different team. But it has gotten close to the standards.
When you want to have an international co-production, you need a shared language, and you have to divide the responsibilities, and because of the restricted atmosphere in Iran we have not had many experiences like this, but we are gradually getting more international experiences, especially for independent filmmakers who have no other way than to have their films co-produced by different countries and companies.
MM: Yes, there’s no other way than to co-produce your film, but it’s still a difficult thing to do. For example, for the next film, the company is thinking of the paths they have to take for co-production, like transferring money, collaborating, managing the expenditures, and they might eventually be discouraged and call it off due to the sanctions.
We need a good working condition to make a good film, and the needs must be met, otherwise while our artists have lots of potentials, and they are talented and hard-working, it’s all going to be wasted.
UM: I wanted to know if you have thought about doing the same thing Asghar Farhadi did, that he left Iran to make films in other countries. Would you make a film outside of Iran if you had the chance?
MM: It’s important to have the knowledge to do that, to be able to make a film anywhere in the world, but most importantly, I have to see whether that belief exists in me. That motivation to send the actors or actresses on the stage, and you have to believe in the things being said and shown. Like considering what kind of reaction people would have to it. I have seen many people like Leila in the society, or people like Amir have always been in my documentaries. I have seen them, and this is a deep understanding which leads to getting the best out of the actors and actresses. Also, you must consider how the audience can relate to the characters and if they can identify them in their own lives.